Although Indiana Press has published several volumes in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Museum on the Nazi concentration camps, it is the contention of Nikolaus Wachsmann, a professor of modern European history at the University of London and the author of the prizewinning Hitler’s Prisons, that it is impossible to see how all the different features of the camps fit together. Wachsmann argues that eighty years after the founding of Dachau, there is no single complete account of the concentration camps, and attempts to rectify this glaring gap in our understanding of the KL in this indispensable volume spanning over 800 pages.
The first of the estimated 980 concentration camps — not including the approximate 30,000 slave labor camps — was Dachau, which was operational in 1933. Wachsmann notes that the early camps like Dachau interned not only criminals but primarily political enemies of the Third Reich with the objective to “rehabilitate” those who opposed the Nazis. Initially, Dachau was a disorganized, brutal camp whose guards were unrestrained in their treatment of Jews, political dissidents, and others. Until Theodore Eicke became commandant of the camps, the sadistic treatment of Dachau’s prisoners shocked many even in the Nazi hierarchy. Appointed by Heinrich Himmler, Eicke brought organization to the camp, although the brutality continued in orderly terror.
By 1934, some in the Third Reich found that camps like Dachau had realized their objectives and proceeded to release thousands of prisoners. Himmler, however, believed that the real mission of the KL went beyond punishing criminals and enemies of the régime. An all-out war against the Reich’s enemies could not be won with traditional methods and weapons, and the nation, Himmler declared, had to be placed on a war-footing. Like soldiers on the battlefield, “the troops fighting against the inner enemy at home must act beyond the law.” This meant the permanent incarceration in concentration camps of all individuals designated as harmful to the nation. The list included not only Jews and communists but Freemasons, homosexuals, nuns, priests, Jehovah Witnesses, and “asocials” as well. With Hitler’s approval, Himmler created a Nazi apparatus acting on a permanent state of emergency. Once World War II commenced, Himmler declared that the nation was in immediate danger from shadowy enemies within Germany who threatened everything the Nazism stood for, from protecting the ideology of “racial hygiene” to “confronting the forces of organized sub-humanity” who, in Himmler’s words, “should not be viewed as humans of our species.” Thus, in the mid-thirties the KL grew in numbers, population, and terror, subsequently leading to the creation of the slave labor and death camps.
Wachsmann succeeds in detailing evolution of the camps in a readable manner. KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps should take its place as the standard work on the subject.